“Give me golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner, and you can keep the clubs and the fresh air.”
-- Jack Benny
Backup goaltenders make up an odd fraternity in the NHL. Some are youngsters on their way up the ladder to a number one position. Others are insurance against shaky performance by the number one goalie they work behind. Others are on the last lap of their careers, grooming young phenoms taking their first steps as a number one goalie. And others are backups.
It might be the most underrated, underappreciated position in teams sports. A backup goaltender in the NHL might get 15-30 starts, and those represent standings points a successful team just cannot afford to give away with poor netminding. Which brings us to Pheonix Copley. Last season, 22 goaltenders had 15-30 starts. Not all were backups in the traditional sense (Stanley Cup winning netminder Jordan Binnington is in this group), but it is a group representative of the position. In that group, Copley finished in the middle of the pack generally – 10th in goals against average (2.90), 12th in save percentage (.905), one of 15 in the group with at least one shutout (he had one), 14th in even strength save percentage (.912), 14th in save percentage when shorthanded (.857).
Copley’s season divides into two parts. Even with having allowed six goals on 36 shots in his first appearance of the season, a 6-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on October 11th, he was 10-2-2, 2.59, .916, with one shutout in his first 15 appearances (one no-decision). However, in his last 12 appearances, he was 6-5-1, 3.31, .889.
Odd Copley Fact…
Pheonix Copley was the only goaltender last season with a Gimmick save percentage under .600 (.583) and a winning record in the trick shot phase (2-1).
Bonus Odd Copley Fact…
Among 54 goaltenders with at least ten wins last season, Copley had the third-worst save percentage in wins (.924) and the fifth-worst goals against average (2.33).
Only once in 10 appearances against teams that qualified for the playoffs last season did Pheonix Copley allow more than three goals (he allowed seven against Nashville in a 7-2 loss on January 15th). He was 4-4-2 against playoff eligible teams with a 2.79 goals against average and a .903 save percentage.
He seemed to be a bit more of a passenger against weaker teams. Copley was 12-3-1 (one no decision) in games against teams not qualifying for the playoffs, but his goals against average (2.98) and save percentage (.905) were not especially impressive.
- Top-20 in career wins as a Capitals goaltender (16; he needs five to tie Dave Parro and Rick Tabaracci for 20th place (21)).
- 1,000 shots faced as a Capital goaltender (776; he needs 224)
- 1,000 saves as a Capital goaltender (702; he needs 298)
The Big Question… Is Pheonix Copley the backup goaltender, or is he keeping the seat warm for Ilya Samsonov?
Draft pedigree might mean less for goaltenders than for any position on the ice. Perhaps the most extreme example of this phenomenon is Dominik Hasek, who was a 10th round draft pick (199th overall) in the 1983 Entry Draft. He had a nice career. Ilya Samsonov is not Dominik Hasek, but he is the highest goaltender draft pick in Capitals history (22nd overall in 2015) with the exception of Olaf Kolzig (19th overall in 1989), and he is perhaps the most well thought of prospect in the Capitals system. He is seen by many as the number one goaltender in waiting.
However, Samsonov has yet to dress for an NHL regular season game, and he has only 37 regular season and five postseason games of experience in the AHL. It would be risk of a high order for the Caps to install Samsonov as the backup to Braden Holtby, given that profile. On the other hand, Copley has NHL experience. Not a lot, mind you (29 regular season games). But he did show promise as a reliable backup with a couple of impressive streaks last season, a 15-game run in which he allowed more than three goals only once and more than two goals only five times, and a six-game winning streak late in the season in which his goals against average was a very good 2.61.
As with almost everything Capitals in the preseason, salary cap issue have to be considered. Copley is under contract at an annual cap hit of $1.1 million for the next three seasons. Samsonov’s cap hit is smaller at $925,000 for each of the next two seasons, and while the difference is not great, the Caps are close enough to the cap to make every dollar something to scrutinize. There is also the matter of the expansion draft to populate the new Seattle franchise lurking. But for the time being, the Caps are faced with the matter of how to juggle goaltending time behind Braden Holtby, balancing the need to keep Copley sharp with the desire to give Samsonov (and, perhaps, Vitek Vanecek) a taste of NHL action.
In the end…
Pheonix Copley might not be the goaltender of the future for the Capitals, but it would be quick to conclude that he could not fill the backup role adequately for this team. Last year was, after all, his first full NHL season. More consistency might be something to look for, and perhaps relying less on run-support for wins. But whatever shortcomings Copley has, they are, by and large, the sorts of things that can improve with experience.
Caps fans were spoiled for a few seasons with Philipp Grubauer manning the backup spot as perhaps the best in that role in the NHL for much of that tenure. Copley might never get to that level of performance, but if he can keep the Caps competitive on nights Braden Holtby gets a break, he can play the vital role of helping to keep the number one netminder fresh while giving the Caps a chance to give Ilya Samsonov a number one goalie’s workload in Hershey in anticipation of that day when it might be his turn to take over the reins of the number one spot. In that regard, Copley’s importance to this team this season as Braden Hotlby’s partner should not be underestimated or taken for granted. It could mean the Caps avoiding golf and the fresh air a bit longer than they did last season.
Projection: 19 games, 10-6-1, 2.88, .906
Photo: Nick Wass/AP Photo